A syndicate that specialises in the trade of banned Crusader soap containing mercury has been using forged customs documents to import about N1 billion worth of the product into the country since 2021, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has said.
This follows a report published by BusinessDay a week ago raising an alarm over the indiscriminate use of chemicals in many skincare products sold in Nigeria.
NAFDAC investigation shows that the products were imported seven times in 2021 alone. Each consignment amounted to about three containers with 4,500 cartons of soap.
These products have found their way into various supermarkets and cosmetics shops with unsuspecting members of the public patronizing them, NAFDAC said.
Mercury is one of the chemicals of global concern flagged by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Even though it is used as a compound in pesticides, pharmaceuticals, paints, and traditional medicine among other uses, the primary use of mercury in cosmetics is for skin-lightening creams, in which inorganic mercury is sometimes used as the active ingredient.
Mercury salts, according to the WHO, prevent the formation of melanin, resulting in a lighter skin tone. The established limit of mercury for skin-lightening products is 1 milligram per kilogram according to the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
NAFDAC in an official statement released on Friday and signed by Mojisola Adeyeye, director-general, said its Investigation and Enforcement Directorate in August busted a warehouse at Trade Fair Market, which was filled with banned imported soaps.
“The successful busting of the warehouse came after three failed attempts, as the cartel using their own informants continuously relocated the consignment of soap to different locations in Lagos to prevent the discovery of the products by the determined team of investigators from NAFDAC investigation and enforcement team,” the statement read.
During interrogation of the prime suspects, one Chief Peter Obih claimed to have bought the franchise of the product from a company and presented an expired NAFDAC certificate that was issued for local manufacture of the product after the ban in Nigeria.
Not one bar of soap has been manufactured in Nigeria since the purported registration in 2013 but the suspect claims to have just secured a contract manufacturing agreement with a local manufacturer who is yet to commence production, the agency said.
Samples of the product taken for laboratory analysis indicated the presence of heavy metals identified as Mercury.
The Crusader soap is falsely labelled as made in England to deceive Nigerians while the actual source is India, the agency noted.
It said the act violates NAFDAC Acts and contravenes the Agency’s regulations, including the cosmetic products (prohibition of bleaching agents) regulations 2019.
“The arrested suspects will be charged in court while a manhunt is currently being intensified to arrest other fleeing members of this deadly syndicate,” NAFDAC said.
The agency reiterated its mandate to regulate and control the manufacture, importation, exportation, advertisement, distribution, sale, and use of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, bottled water, detergent, and chemicals.
Mercury in cosmetics is usually marketed as skin lighteners and anti-aging treatments. They are used to lighten age spots or to get rid of wrinkles, freckles, acne, or other blemishes. They are usually advertised online on social media sites and sold through mobile applications. Mercury is considered by WHO as one of the top ten chemicals or group of chemicals of major public health concern.
Mercury and its compounds in cosmetics are a threat to public health. Mercury is readily absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream and exerts a debilitating effect on the vital internal organs of the body. Mercury can damage the skin, brain, kidney, and nervous system. Damage to the brain results in memory problems, depression, and tingling in the hands, feet, or around the mouth.
Damage to the skin causes rashes and blotchy spots and gives skin a greyish colour. Mercury can also have harmful effects on the eye and ear, causing changes in vision and hearing, respectively.
The health hazards of mercury-containing cosmetics is not just to people who use them, but their families also have a share of the negative consequences of the use of the banned chemical, as they might breathe mercury vapour or become exposed by using things like washcloths or towels that are contaminated with mercury.
It urged the public to note that mercury is not only found in creams and soaps but it is also found in some other cosmetic products, such as balms, lipsticks, and lips balm.
“Before you purchase your cosmetic products, look out for the following signs which might be strong indications of the presence of mercury in the product you are about to buy,” the agency cautioned.